Monday, November 20, 2006

Midwestern Megalomania

I've been tipped off to a new interview with Pirsig. Its another jounalistic style interview that narrates more than it reports, which is all fine for what it is, but when you have an autobiographical book, it doesn't do all that much for those of us who've read it recently. It's nice, but I prefer the Baggini interview because it tries to engage Pirsig's philosophical thoughts. It's also sad because it sounds like this may be his last trip into the public eye.

Not much struck me in the interview, except the new oddball details of his life and the recurring thematic of Midwestern megalomania--a reserved, polite, self-aggrandized revolutionariness that's so soft spoken as to be barely heard.

On the new details score, I have to admit that I'm having trouble fitting in this newbie: "When his wife [Nancy] came to see him [in the asylum] he knew something was wrong but he did not know what it was. A nurse started to cry because she knew that his wife had divorced him while he had been in hospital." Excuse me, what? Nancy divorced Bob before they lived in Minnesota, before Bob took Chris on the trip out west, before he wrote ZMM? Something doesn't fit right. At any rate, if that's true, it certainly means I have to revise somewhat my wild speculations about the subterranean origins of Lila.

However, one thing does fit a lot of pieces together. When Pirsig suggests that, as the interviewer summarizes it, "he was just a man outside his time," and that, as Pirsig puts it, "It was a contest, I believe, between these ideas I had and what I see as the cultural immune system. When somebody goes outside the cultural norms, the culture has to protect itself," I feel like I can say with renewed conviction that--maybe, just maybe--it wasn't Pirsig's ideas that got him hooked up to a mind incinerator and was perhaps, ya' know, the gun he wagged in someone's face.

Maybe it's just my experience dealing with reflected-glory hounds, but I can't say that I have a lot of patience with Pirsig's outsider persona. To the point, I can't say that I have a lot of patience with anybody's outsider persona--"Oh, look at me, I'm so outside the norm. Aren't I cool?" I've run into more than a few of these comme il faut, très chic scenesters with a warm, nuggety center of sublimated I-just-want-to-be-loved to be absolutely sick to death of the goddamn cliché--which, of course, doesn't make it any less true. And why look here:
He hoped Lila would force the 'metaphysics of quality' from the New Age shelves to the philosophy ones, but that has not happened. Though a website dedicated to his ideas boasts 50,000 posts, and there have been outposts of academic interest, he is disappointed that his books have not had more mainstream attention. 'Most academic philosophers ignore it, or badmouth it quietly, and I wondered why that was. I suspect it may have something to do with my insistence that "quality" can not be defined,' he says.

This desire to be incorporated in a philosophy canon seems odd anyhow, since the power of Pirsig's books lie in their dynamic personal quest for value, rather than any fixed statement of it. But maybe eventually every iconoclast wants to be accepted.
It does seem a little odd, now doesn't it? But let me just lay this to rest: Pirsig is not "ignored" because of his insistence that Quality cannot be defined. Pirsig is ignored (if that's the term you want to use) because he didn't teach philosophy at any univerisities, because he never wrote books for any university presses, because he never wrote essays in any journals, because he never read papers or chaired panels at an APA Conference.

And you know what? A lot of people did do that kind of thing and they aren't read or discussed. A lot of people did that and won't be discussed much after they die. Does this mean that their ideas are ahead of their time or that there is a cultural immune system protecting itself from the heretic? Maybe, but probably not. There are many, many particular reasons for every possible outcome that has happened to a philosopher or intellectual-at-large. Does anybody take Santayana's philosophy seriously anymore? Or Royce? Or Brand Blanshard? These figures loomed during their time, but like Stanley Cavell will probably end up, they passed on into the dustbin of active philosophical opinion for one reason or another.

I do know one thing. Santayana, Royce, and Blanshard aren't taken seriously because they were out of style during their time and out of style now. That means that they never left behind a school of followers to continue on in their vein. They may yet come back into style, be rediscovered. And the same thing could happen to Pirsig. But Pirsig ain't makin' it any easier. If he wants to make it into the canon, he has to engage the canon. And Santayana and the rest are example enough that even if you do, nothing is certain.

Personally, I think he's fine right where he is (which is also why I don't cry much about Santayana or lose much sleep over Cavell's probable future). I think the interviewer is right, Pirsig's value is in the spiritual autobiography he's left us, at his attempt to create himself on the page. Why would you want a bunch of stuffed shirts preaching about you when you can have the young generation living through you?


p.s. I now have the links to the Q&A interview. One day too late for my first paragraph. Part One, Part Two, and Part Three. And from what I've read of it in the short time I have available, it seems much more like the kind of thing I'm happy to see from Pirsig. Not that the interviewer butchered Pirsig or anything, but the conversation is much more, well, conversational and likable then the trimmed narrated version of his lines. I still think Midwestern megalomania is a fairly decent hook for some of the things that come out of Pirsig's mouth (I still don't think Pirsig has his pulse on philosophy departments enough to tell what's going on, though I must say he's right about this: "Americans tend to be always just interested in the latest thing." I'm not so sure the Brits aren't culpable in the same thing, but isn't a short term memory good for following the Dynamic nose?), but hey, I certainly ain't sayin' I'm not a Midwestern egomaniac. It shouldn't take anyone that long to figure that out.

p.p.s. I had a really weird dream last night where I dreamt that I read in the interview that Pirsig has been divorced nine times. I woke up and had to shake the sleep from my head and say, "No, no he hasn't. That was a dream." Weird.

Wednesday, November 01, 2006

A monologue we should all memorize

I've never been subjected all that often to questions like, "So...what you gonna' do with that degree...?" It is true that my extended family doesn't understand my pursuits much at all, but my parents inherited from their respective families an awareness that different people lead different lives, even if you can't for the life of you imagine what that might be.

And my friends, well, they're all pretty much like me: overeducated, smart types that, though they don't fit the classic humanist intellectual mold like I do, are well aware that reading esoteric books might be good for somebody. Between that and my scintillating wit, blazing sarcasm, and oversized genius, I've mainly been able to squelch any possible jokes made at my effete sophistication.

But this is hilarious, sent to me by a friend of mine, an English major lost in the woods of Library Book Delivery.

Monday, October 23, 2006

Dewey, Pirsig, Rorty, or How I Convinced an Entire Generation of Pirsigians that Rorty is the Devil: An Ode to David Buchanan

A little background: When I fell in love with Pirsig, it was for all the wrong reasons. Well, maybe not all the reasons were wrong, but I see much more clearly now that the biggest reason was because reading and liking him would piss off my teachers. Or, at least that's what I imagined. After all, it was my Phil 101 teacher, the petite, lithe, dancer extraordinaire, Kay Picart, who (re)introduced me to Pirsig. Reading Pirsig was more fun than Plato or Nietzsche, let alone Sartre or Russell (and god forbid, Heidegger), so when it came time to write a final paper for my Contemporary Philosophy class, I chose Pirsig and dove into Lila. And Pirsig told me that academic philosophers hate him. And lo' and behold, when I told my teacher (who, unlike Picart, shall remain nameless, though largely because she was forgettable and forgotten) that I wanted to write on Bob, she said that I should write a comparison between Pirsig and someone else more established. The Man was holdin' me down, a feeling I then transferred to Pirsig. The Man was holdin' Pirsig down. And really--neither of us were being held down.

Having aged a bit since then, I think it was quite nice that my teacher should even have let me write about Pirsig at all. And, more extraordinarily still, that my Existentialism teacher, Edward Beach, should not hold it against me when I turned a 10-12 page final paper into a 20 page monstrosity that contained far more excursus on one Robert Pirsig than one would expect in a paper on Albert Camus (though its not as if he even had any idea it was coming down the pike; he didn't "let" me, I just did it). I have a much greater appreciation for the role of the teacher these days, and sometimes kids just have to be reigned in. In the old days, I would've been cuffed up side the head, and I probably would've deserved it.

I think it was a total quirk of fate, a complete accident, that led to my obsession with Robert Pirsig. I read Pirsig saying he's being ignored and reviled by the institution, and then I immediately "see" first hand his backhand treatment. Being something of an outsider myself (a feeling that is itself paradoxically balanced by what you might call my cultural traditionalism), my mind latched on to this. Pirsig's philosophy inflammed my mind and I began the journey that has led me here. Before I became literally here, at this little blogspot I call my own, my obsession and meanderings in thought were housed by That website is dedicated to Robert Pirsig, and anybody who lasts any length of time at its discussion groups is in some way obsessed with Pirsig.

Now, if Pirsig had been a putz, then clearly I wouldn't still be obsessed. But Pirsig isn't a putz, though I now see that he isn't everything I wanted him to be. Pirsig was a useful halfway point, a stepping stone, between the way I naively saw philosophy then and the way I see it now. As I see it now, Pirsig was a useful mix of old-school traditional style philosophy, the kind that dealt in big concepts and revolutionary changes, the kind that kids think of when they think of philosophy and Plato and Nietzsche, and the kind of pragmatic, ironic philosophy that makes fun of Plato and Nietzsche.

It is that kind of talk right there, of course, which has gotten me into a lot of trouble over the years at When I started evolving from Pirsigian monotheism into a more polytheistic, open-ended pantheon, I started making noise about this movement. And because everybody already talked about Pirsig, I began to talk about my new hero, Richard Rorty. And I talked a lot about him because I thought he could help us, all of us, in our shared desires of extending Pirsigian philosophy.

That was my mistake. Granted we should all talk about Pirsig at But is it necessary that everybody be as excited about Rorty as I am? Granted he might yet be of interest, but I made a huge error in judgment in my angle of presentation: I criticized Robert Pirsig. A lot. For a long time. In the end, it was totally predictable. What led me to latch on to Pirsig is likely the same thing that led me to latch on to Rorty: I was bucking the establishment. I had illusions of grandeur that I was pissing off academia by writing about Pirsig, and now that there was a new establishment in my town, one fairly sedimented audience, I proceeded to piss them off.

But at, this was a little less than a complete illusion. I mean, on the one hand, who was I, a barely twenty undergrad at a minor, piss-ant state school in Wisconsin, going to piss off in academia? I didn't even know who they were (and that's the first sign that you're making up your enemy). But the ruckus I've caused off and on over the years at is a little more real and evident. Which isn't to say that I still don't have an overdramatization streak that extends to this very moment (just take a look at the title). I may have the memory of an elephant, but most people at forget all too quickly who was raining fire and brimstone a week ago if they're no longer writing. Such is the way these things are, and it's just as well for the discussion group, better in fact. Less anxiety about being the first to write about whatever. Let's you feel like a pioneer, of which, sadly though predictably, I wasn't even one of (though it's a trait Pirsig's commentators share with Pirsig). So, grant the fact that I'm probably indulging in a little hyperbole and just keep your saltshaker around.

Back to my "a little background" story which is supposed to be a small preface before I get to some actual philosophy: I made the mistake of criticizing Pirsig. That, of course, as any rhetorically sane person will tell you, is not a mistake. And yet on the other hand, Aristotle did tell us to know our audiences if you hope for any legitimate shot of being heard fairly. My audience, surprise, surprise, was a lot like me: Pirsig fanatics (or, "enthusiasts", to put it more politely) whose lives rose and set with ZMM and Lila and, most importantly, had an incorrigible cynicism, distrust, and almost preternatural revulsion for academia. They were outsiders. That's why they were there and not in universitity departments. You don't go into a Catholic Church and start badmouthing God and neither do you go to and describe yourself as a "fallen Pirsigian priest". On the one hand, I do think I wasn't treated fairly or understood, but in their defense, I was a little punchy. It would have just been plain smarter to sing the praises of Pirsig and Rorty together, in harmony, for a while before pointing out where I think there are some discordant notes. But no, I seemed pretty eager to kill my intellectual father at the altar of my new one.

Because I started by adopting a critical stance towards Pirsig in my post-Rortyan years, it became almost impossible to take any other stance. Every time I might open my mouth, I was taken to be a heretic. Rightly or wrongly, the rest is history. As I grew, though, particularly at those times when I was away from the hustle and bustle of, I began to see the error in my first, overly enthusiastic steps as a pragmatist. I saw why people reacted so vehemently, I saw where my original writings went askew. In moments of correction, though, my original sin was never fully forgiven. Rightly or wrongly, for better or for worse, I almost single-handedly gave Rorty a bad name at the discussion groups.

Thank God for short memories, right? Well, there are others who have longer memories. And those are my main interlocutors. What prompted this reflection was a letter from one of my most outspoken critics at, David Buchanan. David has taken up the study of pragmatism, particularly Dewey, and he has been pleasantly surprised at how much better he likes Dewey through the eyes of his professor, David L. Hildebrand, than through the eyes of Rorty (which are then filtered through my eyes). He is particularly excited by the fact that Hildebrand is critical of Rorty, giving voice to the same things he's been critical of me for over the years. So David invited me to comment on one of Prof. Hildebrand's short pieces about Rorty available at his website.

The paper is a short, succinct summary of things Hildebrand has expanded on elsewhere in his retreat from Rorty and it does sound like the things David and others have been telling me for years. But I still can't see my way around it. Hildebrand does a pretty good job of summarizing Rorty up and notes, more or less correctly, the sides of Rorty that would seemingly get in the way (for instance, what he calls Rorty's theoretical approach). I'm just not at all sure they do.

On the face of it, it all revolves around this term “experience.” I'm still not sure what people who dislike Rorty and love Dewey/Pirsig think it is. Take one example from the second page. Hildebrand says, “Linguistic pragmatism, then, eschews philosophical terms that refer to non-linguistic entities or effects.” This gives me a queer feeling because I feel like I'm being led into a trap. On the one hand, do I agree because the specifically analytic notion of “reference” never panned out (which is one reason the correspondence theory of truth can’t get off the ground)? Or do I disagree, noting that Rorty has no trouble with the word “rock”?

On the one hand, Hildebrand does specifically say "philosophical terms," which leads me to think he is talking about the whole reference problem. But what's the problem with that? After all, do a lot of people have "rock" as a central term in their specifically philosophical vocabulary? On the other hand, however, why would Hildebrand reference "non-linguistic entities or events" unless he was talking about rocks, which is the constant complaint about linguistic pragmatism--its solipsism by (only slightly) other means. But I've never been able to wrap my head around that complaint. Rorty isn't saying that we shouldn’t use words that don't refer, or even that words don't refer at all--all words refer to something.

The trouble was when philosophers tried to isolate one half of our language, the half that referred to non-linguistic entities (like "rock"), from the other half of our language, the half that only referred to other linguistic entities (like "good"). (I should add that that example isn't the only attempt to isolate language into types, just one example of isolation.) These philosophers then set up one side as "really referring" or some such better, or more assured, relation. Classic representationalism. On this formulation of Rorty's point, linguistic pragmatism isn't suggesting that we get rid of reference, its simply suggesting that we stop trying to figure out when we are referring or not--its pretty obvious we are always referring.

The "reference problem" is something that distracted positivists and we can use their example to see how this invidious distinction is created. For early positivists following the Vienna Circle, particularly Rudolph Carnap, propositions were broken into three different groups: analytic, cognitively meaningful, and cognitively meaningless (or emotive). Analytic propositions were those true by definition, i.e. they only referred to other language, the classic being "All bachelors are single." All non-analytic statements were then taken through the verifiability test: if they can be empirically verified, they are meaningful, if not, then not. Rocks yes, morals no (hence ethical emotivism). The positivists did this in part because they were a little tired of all the wide-ranging, completely unarguable metaphysical speculation. They wanted some results, like the sciences. This is why Carnap, and Quine for that matter, hated Heidegger.

This all fell apart for the positivists, of course, when you ask if the verifiability criterion for meaningfulness is itself verifiable. It is obviously not true by definition, but neither is it empirically true according to the definition of empirical that they were using. That is, of course, where Pirsig enters to hammer on how everything is empirical, i.e. experience. Blowing that door open, however, also blows many of the other walls on positivism off. (For more on verificationism, see my "Verificationism and the Shibboleth Problem".)

The reference problem comes in when you try to save the idea of empirical verification as a criterion for truth (something that Pirsig flirts with in his list of criteria for truth). How do you know your words are hooking up properly and accurately to non-language so that you know your statement "there is a rock" is empirically true as opposed to something less empirically true, like analytic statements? For common sense, asking the question just seems plain stupid, but for hi-tech analytic philosophy it became a major problem. The only reason they kept fighting about it, and using increasingly sophisticated, complicated, and remote tools and jargon, is because they wanted to save the correspondence theory of truth. They wanted to say that science (and rocks) are made true by something "out there" (because they obviously and commonsensically do) whereas morality and values are not (because it is not at all obvious what commonsensically “out there” “good” would correspond to). They expanded from the trivial sense that "there is a rock" is made true by the fact that there is a rock in front of me (which I can point to) to an invidious distinction between facts and values. This is where Pirsig steps in again. Pirsig did see presciently that knocking down the empirical/non-empirical distinction down also knocks the fact/value distinction--experience = reality = value. It should excite Pirsigians to hear Dewey say that reality is itself an evaulative term.

Once we free ourselves from representationalism, we can get along quite fine with the trivial sense in which "there is a rock" corresponds to the rock (or is isomorphic with the rock, as one of the hi-tech tools would have it). Rorty admitted as much many years ago, though people who fear the loss of representationalism still take his long-ago titled paper "The World Well Lost" (which even by the early 80s he thought was misleading) too seriously and think he's saying there's nothing at all out there, mysteriously or trivially, that we need pay attention to.

This is why I've probably done a great disservice to Rorty during my first year or two talking about him at I understand why people like Platt Holden or the more recent Ham Priday don't like Rorty. They show all the reaction traits of representationalists, and are even explicit about it sometimes. But with David and Anthony McWatt, I think I've mislead them into a poorer image than need be. Anthony has usually harped most on Rorty's political philosophy, but I might be willing to say that that's a separate beast than his post-linguistic antirepresentationalism (besides which, I’m sure his image of Rorty was gained elsewhere). I've never been quite sure what I did that turned so many people off about it--no, wait, all that "language, not experience" talk.

Well, I really think it’s not as big a deal as I or anybody else has made it. What I think reading Rorty can do for pragmatist-leaners of all strips is give a number of argumentative tools that are useful in puncturing representationalism. I remember when I squabbled with Paul Turner for a while about Rorty some time ago. I think what happened is that he left for a while, read some Rorty away from my distracting taint, and came to his own appreciation for him. If you look at his blog, he considers Rorty and Pirsig to be two of his philosophical heroes. I think the big thing he gained was a bunch of tools. Stuff he doesn't like, he disregards.

Another way of getting at what I think makes many disgruntled with Rorty is taking the footnote that occurs directly before the line I quoted above from Hildebrand’s paper. In footnote five, Hildebrand quotes Rorty in response to Hartshorne (found in Rorty & Pragmatism):

"Because I think of the enrichment of language as the only way to enrich experience, and because I think that language has no transcendental limits, I think of experience as potentially infinitely enrichable."

Hildebrand himself emphasizes with italics this portion of Rorty, but does not comment any further. However, I can almost preternaturally sense what, I would guess, raised hackles on Hildebrand. Rorty says that language is the only way to enrich experience. Rorty's just plain wrong here. But as far as I can tell, it’s more like he misspoke than he was repeating for the 100th time a fundamental plank in neopragmatism. Who knows what new non-linguistic items we will create in the future that will expand and enrich experience? New metals, materials, activities, drugs—whatever. The invention of the activity of surfing expanded our experience over and against the invention of the word "surfing," which also then expanded our experience. There is nothing in Rorty's philosophy, as far as I can tell, that would necessitate the thesis that language is the only way to enrich experience. The thesis is obviously false on its face. Rorty's emphasis in this passage, and the part that is both indispensable to Rorty's philosophy and, as far as I've ever been able to tell, agreeable to Deweyans and Pirsigians alike, is the notion that experience is "potentially infinitely enrichable." I think everyone who likes Rorty or Dewey or Pirsig can get behind that.

What I think lays at the heart of Hildebrand's criticisms, which leads him to say (what I would call) quasi-dubious things about Rorty's philosophy (though as I suggested before, Hildebrand is refreshingly clean, fair, and agreeable in this paper, much more so than many, many I've read on Rorty) is his distinction between the "theoretical" and the "practical". Now, things get pretty hairy and nuanced at this point, and I don't think I have the time or energy or experience to get it right. But I would like to say this: I think we need to keep his distinction between Rorty's (supposed) theoretical approach to philosophy and Dewey's (supposed) practical approach distinct from his distinction between "reflective" and "pre-reflective". Hildebrand, following Dewey, raises this distinction, but I get the impression that people kinda' conflate the two: that because Rorty does (what we are calling) "theoretical" philosophy, he ignores the "pre-reflective". Hildebrand never does explicitly pull those two sets of distinctions together (I think wisely), but if he doesn't, then it isn't at all clear what the problem with Rorty's approach to philosophy is. (For more on what I currently think of "pre-reflective", see my "Dynamic Quality as Pre-Intellectual Experience".)

Many people have criticized Rorty's approach, some fairly, most not so much. What I think people misunderstand about Rorty's approach is that it isn't exclusive. There can be many different approaches. Whatever this "theoretical approach" is that Rorty's engaged in (diagnosis of and elaboration of these differences being the hairy part and not something I have time to pursue currently), there is nothing in Rorty's writing that suggests that there is a right or wrong way to do philosophy--there is no first philosophy that all must pass through (as Descartes saw epistemology and Michael Dummett saw philosophy of language). There are only more and less efficacious and useful ways of doing philosophy for various particular things. Are Rorty's writings always the most efficacious and useful according to his own philosophy's lights? No. That's the part many people can't wrap their heads around. There are many things that Rorty leaves untouched. Rorty has always remained modest and always been surprised by those who attribtute to him prophetic or revolutionary sight, or some such thing. Many people, however, seem to think that the truth of, say, antirepresentationalism stands or falls on its espousers ability to say something about everything. Rorty, on the other hand, doesn't think he's equipped to be able to do everything. He writes about philosophy. He sometimes writes about politics, but even then most of that is advocation of the cool things someone else has said better in the hopes that he can turn a few people on to the other writer.

In his letter to me, David repeats an often applied diagnosis, one Rorty has acknowledged in a certain way: Rorty is a broken-hearted positivist. I think one of the bad impressions that I may have given (and that Rorty has regretted giving himself) is that, as David also says of Rorty, "the failure of the positivistic project is central in such a way that it changes everything about philosophy". It is a big deal for a certain kind of philosophy (the post-Cartesian "epistemology industry," as Dewey called it, and all the subsidiaries who work in its shadow), but philosophy is one of those things where there is always more than any particular, arbitrarily demarcated section of it (remember Pirsig's advice from Lila that Pirsig sometimes forgets: never define philosophy). Rorty's past works feed that image whenever he said something to the effect of "the linguistic turn was the greatest thing to ever happen to philosophy." Hildebrand picked out a quote like that in his paper: “By focusing our attention on the relation between language and the rest of the world rather than between experience and nature, post-positivistic analytic philosophy was able to make a more radical break with the philosophical tradition.” (from Rorty’s “Dewey’s Metaphysics”) Rorty regrets to a certain extent saying things like that now.

It is instructive to pick up the reprint of his famous anthology, The Linguistic Turn, and read the postscripts to it. The intro to the anthology is gigantic, judicious and extremely informative on what analytics thought of themselves at that period (reading it is as good as most classes on positivism). He says in it, though, that:
Linguistic philosophy, over the last thirty years, has succeeded in putting the entire philosophical tradition, from Parmenides through Descartes and Hume to Bradley and Whitehead, on the defensive. It has done so by a careful and thorough scrutiny of the ways in which traditional philosophers have used language in the formulation of their problems. This achievement is sufficient to place this period among the great ages of the history of philosophy.
In the "Ten Years Later" postscript, he talks less enthusiastically about analytic philosophy (he was writing PMN, the book analytics hate, at that time). But in the "Twenty-five Years Later" postscript, he says “What I find most striking about my 1965 essay is how seriously I took the phenomenon of the ‘linguistic turn,’ how portentous it then seemed to me. I am startled, embarrassed, and amused to reread the [above] passage…. That last sentence now strikes me as merely the attempt of a thirty-three-year-old philosopher to convince himself that he had had the luck to be born at the right time….” Or, “Er, yeah, ya’ know when I said linguistic philosophy was better than sliced bread? Yeeeah, that was a little overboard, wasn’t it?”

What I suggest what one does with all those passages where he lauds the linguistic turn is to read them as saying, "the linguistic turn was good for academic philosophy because it has led them to more and more doubt representationalism" (which we can see by the renaissance of pragmatism). There isn't any necessary reason for this to have happened. Becoming post-linguistic doesn't give you necessarily a better philosophy, nor does it necessarily make you immediately more predisposed to pragmatism. Many of the doctrines pragmatists call their own, for instance holism, were precursored by philosophers who didn’t think all that much about language.

Saying that, though, I do tend to agree with Rorty that antirepresentationalism does seem less counterintuitively when stated in "linguistic terms," or, as Hildbrand quotes him, “‘Language’ is a more suitable notion than ‘experience’ for saying the holistic and anti-foundational things which James and Dewey had wanted to say.” Again, “suitable” is perhaps the wrong word, but the point is that it really doesn't matter which notion we use. I suggest we read those comments as historical comments about the way things have turned out and progressed, not as statements about where we should necessarily go or how we should necessarily do things. Its philosophy: there are all sorts of things we can do and still stay out of the way of representationalism.

So when David defines radical empiricism in his letter as "there is no reality outside of experience AND that there is no good reason to exclude any kind of experience from an account of reality," I can only concur and say that Dewey, James, Pirsig, and Rorty would all fall into place, too. I think there are two things that bug Pirsigians about Rorty in this regard. One, he doesn't talk about mysticism, which Pirsig is quite focused. In this regard, the answer I've been trying to forward over the years is that Rorty isn't denying the empirical nature of mystical experience. He just doesn't have anything to say about it. He isn't offering a general account of reality, he's giving arguments against representationalism (which is very pervasive, far more than some think, though that's probably a debatable point). Like I said before, there are a lot more different kinds of philosophy than the kind Rorty and academics do and Rorty considers the function he plays is as an underlaborer (an image pioneered by Locke and used a lot by Dewey, and even by Pirsig at the beginning of ZMM) for clearing out all the arbitrary divisions that keep out stuff like mysticism. Its kinda' like Rorty engages the academics on the behalf of mystics (and others), though not as a mystic. He wants people to stop thinking that philosophy looks like this and not like anything else. It is possible that Rorty doesn’t find mysticism interesting, but surely it doesn’t follow that the effect is that he denies its possibility. If one can accept the idea of beer and not become a beer drinker, then one can find beer uninteresting and still find a place for it in their account of reality.

The second thing that I think gives Pirsigians a bad taste about Rorty is the fact that Rorty doesn't give a general account of reality. They see Rorty suggesting that Dewey's hankering after a general account of reality and experience in Experience and Nature is bad metaphysics and, because they like that kind of thing (which is what Pirsig does), they get the feeling that Rorty's doing something bad. What I want to suggest is that giving an "account of reality" is necessarily a never-ending task if one accepts what I suggested all pragmatists can get behind—experience is infinitely expandable. And if that's the case, than a non-exclusionary "account of reality" will look less and less like a series of propositions about reality and more and more like a series of history books that keeps adding volumes. If there is "no good reason to exclude any kind of experience from an account of reality," then because there will always be the open-endness of experience, there will always be the possibility of new kinds of experience. That means that a truly full "account" will look less like something you can do generally and more like something you need to stay in the particular about. That, I think, lays at the heart of Rorty's suspicions about Dewey's Experience and Nature, which is where most of Rorty's talk against the philosophical concept of "experience" comes from (and even Dewey later in life distanced himself from that book). And remember: it’s just about "experience" as a philosophical concept. He just finds it personally easier to stay away from it when attacking representationalism.

This aversion of the general is also what keeps me from sidling up easily to David’s sometimes virulent anti-theism. I've never been quite able to put my head around it, how one can stay pragmatist and not think that James was right in "The Will to Believe". Don't get me wrong: when it comes to politics, screw Bush, Robertson, and Fatwell. But when it comes to individual believers, and not politics and institutions, I have trouble dissociating what Christians would call an "experience of God" from what mystics would call a "mystical experience". I'm not saying they're totally interchangeable terms, that what Buddhists call Enlightenment, Christians call God. What I am saying, however, is that when we consider that what gets mystical experience in the door of radical empiricism is that it is reported as happening (because that is exactly what gets every experience in the door, from rocks to moral disgust), then I'm not sure how "experience of God" gets booted, thus making theism look stupid and making one an anti-theist as opposed to anti-Christian Coalition or anti-clerical (which is what Rorty has started to call himself in the last six or seven years). (For some other takes on mysticism and atheism, see my "What is Enlightenment?" and "How is Atheism a Religion?".)

Granted the above contains some possibly disputed points (like "reporting" being the door to radical empiricism) which can be discussed, but the simpler question is simply, "How can we say 'experience of God' has never happened and 'mystical experience' has?" As far as I can tell, when I go to write up my account of reality, I'll have to include both. I haven't experienced either, but other people have and I have no good reason to exclude them from my account.

One thing I really wish I could persuade people like David and Pirsig in doing is dropping talk about language's inability to capture an experience. I know what is being driven at: "beer" is not the same thing as a beer. However, I still think the idea that language cannot ever capture experience is the flip side of representationalism's idea that it can sometimes. What we ought to do is just drop the idea that it is in the capturing business. David and I have had a long conversation about this exact thing, and it spurred me on to what I consider some of my best writing, but as I said then, language is not a pirate. (See my "Language, SOM, and the Pathos of Distance".) I think that that generalization from the trivial and acceptable point that "beer" is not the same as a beer is the same kind of mistake that I suggested the representationlists made in generalizing from the trivial sense in which "there is a rock" corresponds to a rock to a full-blown correspondence theory of truth. I think both our flip-sides of each other and I think both are best left behind. Just as Rorty seems to be captivated by language, I think Pirsigians look like their captivated by its flip-side—not-language. We need to stop being enchanted by either notion. The movement from theoria to praxis, as Deweyans and Pirsigians might point out, doesn't mean we leave language behind or our ignoring it. But I think it should be stressed that it doesn't have anything to do with language at all—which is exactly what I take the point with the movement to be: we're no longer captivated by its image, pro or con. We don't occupy our time with thinking about the Forms, or God, or the mind, or language isolated from everything else. Instead we think about our practices in a society with other people. Those practices may make reference to any or all of the above, but the above are not in isolation from the practices that reference them.To bring it around again to Hildebrand, the distinctions between “theoretical/practical” and “reflective/pre-reflective” may lay at the heart of the dispute over "experience" as a philosophical term, the dispute between Deweyans and Rortyans. Is there a correct way of doing philosophy? What is theoretical philosophy as opposed to practical philosophy, and why is theoretical philosophy banned, or at least displaced? How does the notion of “pre-reflective” play into this?

I see two probable directions: either one defines "experience" as something less than completely synonymous with reality so that you can oppose experience to something that is not-experience and argue (initially plausibly given the baggage of the terms) that practical philosophy deals with experience (and is therefore good) and theoretical philosophy does not (and is therefore bad and disengaged), or one defines "experience" as totally synonymous with reality, which effectively makes everything an experience, everything a practical activity—theoretical philosophy as much as any other kind of philosophy. If the first direction, it would be easy to make Rorty look bad, but then it would be hard to justify the places in Dewey and Pirsig that suggest the second direction. If the second direction, then one has effectively disarmed themselves of the weapons they were using (the theoretical/practical distinction so conceived) and a new weapon must be taken up.

The first direction silently makes the leap from "experience" to "non-linguistic entities" which Hildebrand made in his paper, the same leap I silently left uncovered at the very beginning of my remarks about Hildebrand. The second direction says that talking and language is just one more facet of experience. Until somebody explicates the connection between experience and non-linguistic entities, one which does not hold between experience and linguistic entities and finally takes a stand and says that talking, reading, thinking, and language is not an experience, then Dewey and Deweyans like Hildebrand, Sleeper, Margolis, McDermott, etc., look like they're waffling between two definitions of experience, dipping into both, and claiming all the advantages and none of the disadvantages.


This overlong meditation has functioned as something of a brief rejoinder to Hildebrand, a kind of elaboration on the continuities and discontinuities between Dewey, Pirsig, and Rorty, a furthering of my conversation with David, and as a personal apology to David and all others who despise Rorty because of me. No one should despise another because of what somebody else has said about them and I regret the actions that may have led anyone to a certain, despicable impression. One should be able to read Rorty, or anyone for that matter, without the persistent voice of another in their ear. Rorty should rise and fall on his own merits, not my meager ones.

David said to me in his letter that our conversations were helpful in preparing him for his return to academia. Indeed, our conversations have been an integral element in my own evolution. I thank David for his constant criticism. Though our conversations were often heated, unruly, and belligerently antagonistic, it is certainly an obvious and undeniable fact that he has been the direct impetus for many of the views I've developed, elaborated, and now hold. We may not agree, but David has certainly pushed me to greater and greater levels of writing.

Somebody should make me stop


It is easier said
Than done, after fed
Canard after canard
Told us by the bard,
To wake one day satisfied in your bed.

It would be foolish to suppose, I suppose,
For honesty to be expected from those
Who would enrich our inner thought, I thought,
But perhaps some more candor might have wrought

Something less utopic,
Though sadly more myopic,
For unless I am
Mistaken or damned
Love isn't worth it if not less than idyllic.

Sunday, October 22, 2006

This is getting embarrassing


In between this line
You will see a sign
Of how hard I tried
To have this signified
Less degree and more difference in kind.

It is a messier affair than we once thought
To have our time and the cake we bought,
But suffice to say its more difficult by far
To limn the world with tear-drops and stars.

So will you not please
Take the time to seize
Whatever is in reach,
And say not my peach,
For I 'spect the words are nothing more than a tease.

Sunday, August 20, 2006

My Voice

Listen to Me!

At the beginning of Arthur Danto's paper, "In Their Own Voice", Danto comments that most contemporary star-philosophers have fairly distinct writing styles, "possibly in consequence of the fact that so much of what they have written has been composed to be read before audiences, and hence is filled with devices of a kind calculated to hold an audience...." When I first read that, it resonated with a long held image I've had of myself. When I was young, an English teacher told me that I wrote how I talked--and that this was bad. Being a defiant, antiauthoritarian as I was, I latched onto it rather than rebuffed it. I write how I talk, that's how I write. Get used to it. From the age of 12 to 19 I was impossible to teach (writing that is, though I suspect that wasn't the only thing).

When I was 21, I did end up having to take another writing class, but by that time I wasn't all that bad. Because let's face it--I was insolent in the face of subpar writing. I always managed to get through, though, because I wasn't that bad. What saved me during my youthful bouts of arrogance was the fact that, by and large, most people can't write their way out of a paper bag. (The reason I took a writing class when I was 21 was because I had transfered to UW-Madison, which several years earlier had installed a new set of requirements: Comm A and B, and Quant A and B. They created them because apparently businesses were complaining that UW graduates couldn't write or count.) So my writing has always existed on the bottom edge of above average--a fair number of people wrote better, but I could be ignored because the vast majority wrote like Dr. Seuss (which probably would've been a step up for them).

But even at 21, my writing wasn't all that great. Like almost everything else in my life it would seem, what changed everything was reading Richard Rorty. I began to unconsciously emulate his writing style. I think that happened because I already had a similar style to his, which is probably why I got into Rorty so much in the first place. I found him so easy, fun, and entertaining to read because my favorite writer is me. I could sit and read me all day. Of course, my writing has taken gigantic leaps forward in the last five years. Now, I think, I actually am a decent writer, whereas before I was just a defiant writer.

Danto's comment really hit home with me because it connected up the fact that I've always imagined myself as writing like I talk with the fact that Rorty, being one of Danto's instances of a star-philosopher, writes like he talks to a certain extent, at least insofar as many of his writings since Consequences of Pragmatism have been lectures.

That gave me an idea. A common pratice of mine is to read my blog posts, or MD posts, or essays, outloud. I do that because so much of my style (the pacing, rhythm, etc.) is bound up with my delivery. At least, I think so. As James Conant said, hearing Rorty for the first time changed the way he thought about his philosophy. I had the same experience with hearing Rorty online. (Well, maybe it didn't change anything, but it deepened something.) My idea was to offer my posts in audio form in addition to text. I got an iRiver for Christmas from my mother and one of the perks is that it has a voice recorder. So I thought, hey, why don't I let people hear me?

Of course, it has occured to me that it is a little egocentric for me to do so. I mean, who's gonna' listen to them? The text is right there, why would you spend more time listening to it? But, I figure, I got nothing better to do, so why not? I know most of the people who spend any time on my blog, and maybe it'll let those tiny few (you know who you are) get to know me a little better, considering none of us have actually met, and some of them I'd like to refer to as friends.

At the very least, I can listen to them. Hey, I can even put them on my iRiver and listen to them. Maybe then I'll hear something interesting during class.

Tuesday, August 08, 2006

How is Atheism a Religion?

Why would people say that atheism is a religion? The face of the question does seem pretty silly and should probably be "Who would say that atheism is a religion?" But people do get told sometimes that, say, atheism or Marxism or secularism is a religion. For instance, when I was a freshman in college, the textbook we used for my Religious Studies class classified those three things as religious viewpoints--as, in fact, religions.

But why? Why would somebody classify them that way? For the man on the street, the classification just seems dumb. What kind of crazy logic does one use to make that statement?

The logic behind these kinds of classifications (atheism, Marxism, secularism are just three more religious instantiations) isn't exactly crazy or convoluted, but it does seem a little silly--think of everything you'd have to include. The enabler of the classification is an expanded definition of "religion." This usually only occurs in academic circles, and one example is religion as "a system of belief." If we are using that definition, then the others all seem to fall into place--sort of. Think of how small an atheist's (as opposed to a Marxist's) "system of belief" is--one belief, "God does not exist." However, if one pulls implications from this, like the truth of, say, existentialism or Darwinian evolution, then one plausibly starts extending the number of beliefs housed under the system of belief called "atheism."

But it's still silly. This all started when the Enlightenment started opposing "beliefs" to "knowledge" (which is actually something that started earlier, with the Greeks). They did so to put Christians on the defensive. You couldn't be an open atheist in the old days, but as the Renaissance wore into the Reformation, and then with the advent of the New Science, atheists (all of whom were intellectuals) became bolder and bolder. And they had a lot of built up resentment over having to be in the closet. The Enlightenment was the explosion of all this. Particularly with Galileo and Newton doing such fine work, they started asserting their supremacy over Christians by making invidious distinctions between tradition and reason, prejudice and rationality, superstition and facts, beliefs and knowledge, etc.

As time has worn on, however, religious intellectuals have learned from their mistakes. In particular, they've gone on the offensive. The Enlightenment was able to make all of these invidious distinctions because they believed (mostly because Kant had said so) that their philosophy was presuppositionless--bereft of assumptions. Christians had made the mistake (from this point of view, a tactical mistake) of resting their philosophy on faith, on the unarguable nature of God. Well, Enlightenment philosophers jumped all over this. The New Science opened up massive hope for not just having to accept things on faith, but being able to prove them. So, everything unprovable, unarguable, must be based on second-rate faith. Like faith that unicorns do, in fact, exist.

Theologians tottered off into a corner, licked their wounds, and began to scrutinize just what had happened. They noticed that these Enlightenment folks liked to talk about everything, that offering clipped "the Bible tells us so" (even when you sing it) isn't good enough for them. They wanted arguments that played by the rules of logic. "Okay," they said, "we'll give you an argument." They honed in on the notion of "presuppositionless," noticing that the atheists' most-used weapons hinged on it. They noticed that for an argument to get off the ground, you need to take for granted certain things--you can't argue about everything all at once. The Enlightenment notion of "presuppositionlessness," however, seemed to suppose that Enlightenment philosophers didn't have to take anything for granted--they had no assumptions. But any argument that is made clearly shows that to be false--every argument has assumptions.

They rolled that around in their heads for a while and eventually figured out that if Enlightenment philosophy was true, it was impossible, but since it was not impossible (it being an historically instantiated actuality), it had assumptions--assumptions that could be attacked, just as their's had been attacked. One line of attack is this: if beliefs are opposed to knowledge based on the fact that you can't argue or prove beliefs and you can about knowledge, then your "knowledge" (for instance, "there is no God") has a background of belief that cannot be argued or proven.

This little story is, of course, not literally what happened (atheists, in fact, had more to do with giving Christians these weapons then they themselves had to do with creating them). But I hope it shows the outlines of how calling atheism a "system of belief" makes sense. This little tall tale is, in fact, what leads directly to the contemporary inflammation of creationism, or intelligent design as they're calling it these days. ID defenders like Phillip Johnson, Ken Ham, and Michael Behe blend together things learned from evil post-modernism with wonderful Bible dogmatism in the weirdest possible way--and yet it is fairly coherent, just really stupid. I take the recent "backlash" against Darwin to be the clearest signal, far more powerful than anything Rorty or anybody else has written, for us to finally and forever ditch Enlightenment philosophy and all of its remenants. Adherence to Enlightenment philosophy and its rhetoric is what allows Johnson and his compatriots a foothold, or a "wedge" as they like to call it. If we ditch Enlightenment, scientistic rhetoric, the wedge has no crack to enter.

To sum up: atheism is a religion only if you define religion in broad, almost useless ways like "system of belief." Such a definition might be useful for certain, narrow academic purposes, but for the most part those of us in the real world need something with a little more bite. If your definition involves the accumulation of multiple labels for a person (i.e., a Christian is also a democratic citizen, meaning that Christianity as a system of belief does not include democracy as a system of belief), that a person is the intersection of a number of "systems of belief", then atheism is a pretty weak system of belief because "system" seems to imply more than one belief: God doesn't exist. Atheism then becomes the call for the abandonment of a particular kind of system of belief. It becomes the suggestion that the sector in our network of systems of belief, where beliefs that revolve around the word "God" exist, should cease to be a sector in which we do any thinking, it should be emptied out and left alone.

So if somebody brings up the "fact" that atheism is a religion for polemical purposes, just counter by saying, "Yeah, okay, if you stretch religion so far as to include atheism, then its a religion. But it's still the religion that says that all this God-talk is pretty pointless." Switching the grounds of debate from "belief" to "stuff we talk about" is fairly effective.

Saturday, July 08, 2006

Absolute Truth

The notion of Absolute Truth began from the conviction that, though what we are justified in believing changes, what is in all actuality true stays the same. We can imagine its origins in the notion of a supreme being that looked down on the affairs of humanity from on high and had, because of its omniscience, an invariable sense of truth. Plato still had this notion of omniscience when he suggested that the affairs of humanity were a pale reflection of what was really going on, mere shadows of the actual objects. So, Plato said, we could follow the Sophists and play with shadows if we wanted, but true philosophers seek the actual objects standing behind them.

Plato, however, didn’t just posit his notion of the Realm of the Forms as some explanation of why things change, of why we used to think kings or democracy were good, but now we don’t. Plato also had a much more practical goal in mind. Plato had learned from his teacher, Socrates, that doing what you believe is pious conversationally amounts to the same thing as performing the will of the gods. And yet, Plato thought that we could find out what the will of the gods was. He thought he had found a method, a way of cutting through the thick veil of appearance. This was Socrates’ elenchus transformed into the dialectic. The exercise of the Republic was to show that if we found out more about the Form of Justice, we could be more just to our fellow citizens, more about the Form of the Good, more ethical to other people, more about Truth, less wrong.

If we could find out more about Truth, which is invariable, eternal, and absolute, we could have more true beliefs—truth is the ultimate justification. The trouble that immediately confronted Plato’s project was the sense that its aspirations and ambition was enormous. To undertake the project of looking for the ultimate justification was to bypass run-of-the-mill justification, which we can see in Plato’s bitterness in describing the ship of state—nobody bothers to ask how to run the ship the only people who really know how to run the ship. The problem, of course, is that the Platonic philosopher’s faraway gaze tends to gloss over the here and now. Plato thought that in the long run, philosophers were the only way to go. But in the short run, Aristotle’s practical philosophy took over the hearts and minds of intellectuals.

I follow Stephen Toulmin in thinking that Descartes marked the resurgence of the Platonic desire to bypass the here and now of justification to attain the always and forever of Absolute Truth. This desire is marked by the priority of epistemology, of figuring out and getting straight in advance what the foundations and criteria are for truth and justification. By figuring out in advance what the criteria of truth are we could short-circuit the need to justify for particular audiences. Descartes, like Plato, knew that any particular person or audience could be flawed, though both supposed that every person, deep down, has the same unequivocal capacity to see the Truth.

Post-Cartesian epistemology has struggled long and hard in the face of a seemingly insurmountable difficulty: all criteria are stated by people, people who belong to audiences, audiences that are transitory and perhaps flawed. The counterinsurgency to Cartesian philosophy, led by philosophers from Bayle and Hume to Hegel and Nietzsche to James and Wittgenstein, has been a long trail countering the idea that we may yet erect an ahistorical boundary-water for what we may think, for what truth may appear as to us. The trail has taken many turns and forms, but one thing is worth highlighting here: every step of the way, every counter to proposed methods and criteria, has forced Cartesians further and further away from the lives of their fellow brethren. Cartesian philosophy became more and more insulated from the concerns of humanity the harder they tried to formulate this foundation for Knowledge and Truth. And this surely makes predictable sense: one can imagine that reformulating and refining a project who’s goal is to bypass the need for any particular, historically instantiated audience’s assent (because an audience’s assent is the devil’s curse of transitory historicity) will eventually become remote from what the rest of humanity is doing. As every branch originally grown on philosophy’s tree fell to the earth, from astronomy to physics and psychology to intellectual history, philosophy happily waved good-bye and focused on what increasingly became its only purpose: the search for Absolute Truth, though in these latter days we prudently call it something like the search for independent criteria of veridical validity.

As the 19th-century strolled into the 20th, in the anglophone world old-school system building waned in the face of the waxing of what is now called “analytic philosophy”. Philosophers put the sloppy and tidy speculations aside in favor of the solution to definite and discernible problems. Everything, however, still revolved around the search for criteria. After all, without criteria for the solution of problems, arguments would continue on for centuries—like they had been. Philosophers began to feel anxious about this. What’s more, the movement that many early analytic philosophers had pinned their hopes on, logical positivism, began to fall apart by the middle of the century. Logical positivists had thought that they had finally found their way to Truth. Their first move against the muddy tradition of criterionless, speculative philosophy was to pin all of their hopes on science. The New Science changed philosophy irrevocably in Descartes’ time, but the logical positivists thought that the philosophical proposals marshaled by the descendents of Descartes and Locke, and even Kant (though especially evil Hegel), had fallen away from the science bandwagon and had hoped for something special for themselves. Oh no, said the logical positivists, science is where it is all happening and the sooner we figure that out the better we’ll all be. Science gets results. They have criteria. So, positivists said, the sooner we start acting like scientists, the sooner we’ll solve these trifle things we call “philosophical problems.”

Having already peremptorily relegated themselves to a status lower than physics, they set about trying to help science by getting straight what science was doing. This prompted the second move against the tradition, the move towards the study of language. Since everything has to be stated in language, the sooner we get a rigorous, scientific study of language off the ground, a set of logical and grammatical rules, the sooner this mess will all end—hence the rise of symbolic logic in philosophy departments.

To pull it all together, both the obeisance to science and the lynchpin of language, the logical positivists proposed their great criterion for truth: the verifiability criterion. If what made science so lovely was that it was verifiable, and science got us truth, then shouldn’t the great criterion for truth be verifiability? This wasn’t a bad idea at all, except for one thing: how was the criterion itself verifiable? By any of the interesting versions of the criterion’s own lights, the criterion itself was unverifiable and therefore cognitively meaningless. This broke one of the first rules of philosophy: don’t deny anything you’ve presupposed.

Logical positivism never really recovered and through the fifties and sixties was subjected to continuous attacks by an ever more bolder subsection of the analytic establishment. This subsection began to increasingly identify as pragmatists. The pragmatists from an earlier generation, Peirce, James, and Dewey, were famously reviled by the up and coming analytic movement. Russell said of Dewey that the pragmatist theory of truth amounted to “the danger of what might be called cosmic impiety.” The pragmatists were famous for returning to the realm of human praxis, in focusing on justification, rather than truth. Platonic realists like Russell feared that such an exultation of the powers of humanity might bring the hubris of future generations declaring that Caesar never crossed the Rubicon.

Analytics who led the attack on logical positivism were those like Quine, Sellars, Kuhn, Feyerabend, Putnam, Davidson, and Rorty. Rorty in particular became a poster-boy for the attacks because of his combination of acute analysis and argumentation, breadth of historical knowledge, range of philosophical acquaintance, and, perhaps unfortunately most of all, his penchant for bombastic turns of phrase. Rorty linked most explicitly the movement away from logical positivism to the movement towards pragmatism, but, like James and Dewey before him, became attached to such notions as relativism, irrationalism, nihilism, and the end of philosophy. For our purposes at hand, he was taken to deny truth. By attacking the notion of “absolute truth,” the Platonic notion of theoretically outlining where and how truth occurs and therefore what is true, Rorty suggested that truth is not a philosophically interesting topic that inquiry into could help in the living of our lives.

Lately Rorty has come to grips with the idea that some of the suggestions proposed by pragmatism are counterintuitive, which itself seems counterintuitive to the idea of pragmatism. Pragmatism was supposed to be about the elimination of extraneous philosophical attachments, appealing to the common sense of our practical lives. But Rorty agrees with Feyerbend that, for instance, as long as we have common speech, we are going to have the idea of “mind,” that which philosophical wrecking balls like Ryle and Dennett have been trying to demystify. Rorty has generalized this sentiment (along with Nietzsche’s that as long as we have grammar, we’ll have God) by suggesting that Platonism is built into our common sense. But philosophy since Plato has been not just about summarizing the way we think, but also suggesting changes in the way we think. In philosophy, the intuitive has always been commingled with the counterintuitive to create a new intuition, a new common sense that is perhaps better than the old.

One of the ways in which this is given effect is by making a distinction between commonsensical conversation and philosophical conversation, so-called “speaking with the vulgar” and more sophisticated, specialized talk. As I suggested above, philosophy has become a highly technical enterprise that has been disengaging itself from everyday life for many, many years. Some people, however, are suspicious of such a distinction between two conversations, seeing it as breeding pointless jargonizing and instead valuing “plainer speech.” However, I think one can still keep, for instance, Pirsig’s criticism of pointless Victorian circumlocutions while acknowledging that, for instance, scientists keep the kind of distinction I’m talking about between their activities at work and at home (by calling it a “table” instead of a “cloud of electrons between vectors X, Y, and Z”), or between writing articles for scientific journals and writing a “popular science” book.

The point is the common sense one that our words gain resonance and meaning from the contexts in which we use them. A great impetus for 20th century analytic philosophy was the notion that the problems of philosophy (so-called “metaphysical problems” like free will vs. determinism) were created by taking words like “freedom” out of the original, common sense contexts in which they arose and creating a new context for them, one that warped their original meaning until it had little to do with the original context, thus creating pseudo-problems—in other words, metaphysics was simply a set of pointless circumlocutions that just confused things.

The subsection of the analytic movement that was based on the above impetus became known as “ordinary language philosophy”, or Oxford philosophy (because of the residence of its most well-known gurus, J. L. Austin, Gilbert Ryle, and P. F. Strawson). On the one hand, Oxford philosophy foundered just as logical positivism did, but it does create added pressure for us philosophers in justifying some of the contexts we deal in. How does, or could, this effect us? What I think we see in the rise of neopragmatism, basically pragmatism in the analytic idiom (i.e., post-linguistic turn), is the rewrapping of the upshot of both Oxford philosophy and logical positivism. Logical positivism was also known in a slightly wider sense as “ideal language philosophy”. Their goal was to create a language that made it impossible to state or make sense of philosophical problems. They looked to the future, to possible innovations in language to relieve us of these problems, whereas ordinary language philosophy looked to our past, at the ways in which we use words in common sense contexts. I think pragmatism combines these two directions by playing them off of each other. We look at the way in which we currently use words, we look at our current contexts, and if we see problems arising, we either 1) eschew the context as being extraneous, as serving a pointless purpose or 2) change the language we use, change the context so that it may serve its purpose, but without the problems. (This distillation of wisdom from mid-20th century analytic philosophy comes out strongly when we retrospectively read Rorty’s judicious introduction to his 1967 anthology The Linguistic Turn.)

With the notion of “absolute”, I would like to say that there’s nothing wrong with it in common sense contexts, but that there is something wrong with some of the notions created in philosophical contexts—that the effects in such contexts do not extend to everyday life at all. As James said after likewise dismissing the free will/determinism problem, it makes a difference that makes no difference. So, on the one hand saying that “my cat absolutely died by hanging itself with its leash” is true and perfectly understandle, saying that “we have to believe in Absolute Truth to be truthful”, while possibly making sense, cannot ever effect our practice. Plato created an activity, that of inquiring into Truth, of creating a theory of Truth that would surround all true statements, that cannot end, and cannot therefore cash out for us in everyday practice, because treating truth as an object of inquiry creates an activity that has no criteria for even knowing if we had found what we were looking for, an activity that would go on indefinitely with no parameters for even knowing which direction is the right direction to go hunting in. Absolute Truth, as an object to be inquired into, theorized and philosophized about, is a wheel that spins idly by itself. And if it is dead weight, it would be best to cut it loose from our philosophical language, thus trimming our own philosophical language and not letting it get away from us with pointless jargonizing.

The reason why pragmatists have often been excoriated about truth is because the so-called pragmatist theory of truth is said to prove its own falsity—if the true is what works, then the pragmatist theory of truth is false, ‘cuz it don’t work. Pragmatists like Rorty and Davidson have learned that this is right, that as a theory of truth it doesn’t work. One of the formulations that Dewey gave is that truth is warranted assertibility. If truth is warranted assertibility, then “truth” becomes the same thing as “justification”. That conflation is exactly what leads people to call pragmatists relativists, because while we see that justification is relative to audiences, communities, contexts, truth is separate from it for the exact reason that relativism is absurd.

So pragmatists should be willing to admit that justification is different from truth. What they’ve realized though is that the problem is with thinking we need a theory of truth, that we need (or can have) an interesting definition of truth. As Davidson says, truth, like good, is indefinable. The development of theories of truth are exactly those philosophical activities that treat Truth as an object of inquiry, inquiries through which we could learn more about truth and therefore, ideally, the application of “true” to particular linguistic items like “Slavery is wrong”. But how can we learn anything if, in such an inquiry, we appear to be in an endless sea with no compass?

In recent years, Rorty has learned to be content with the notion that truth is an absolute concept. Rorty is splitting the difference between common sense and the counterintuitive suggestions of pragmatism. It makes sense to say that justification is relative, but not truth. So we can say in perfect coherence that the Greeks were justified in practicing slavery, but they were still wrong. Truth may be an absolute notion, but pragmatists think we should give up the hope for a theory of it, that we should stop treating it as an object of inquiry. Justification (by such earmarks as Pirsig’s “tests of truth”) is our only criterion for truth, but that shouldn’t lead us to think they are the same, though likewise we shouldn’t hope for some other criterion. Justification is relative to community, but that doesn’t make us relativists because it isn’t clear what other criterion we could have for truth. It simply makes us fallible experimentalists, always in search of betterness. There are no theories for truth, justification, or betterness. We simply accrue them by the living of life.

Wednesday, June 21, 2006

The Difference: Conversion and Articulation

I've been thinking lately about the differences between me, Rorty, and Pirsig. There are, of course, many differences, at least between Rorty and Pirsig, but one of the areas one can search for differences or similarities is in the area of a person's biography, in their own self-image as a philosopher and how they got from childhood to where they are now. Pirsig's biography, of course, is linked intimately and explicitly to his philosophy (despite the fact that we often suffocate those links to recontruct his philosophy), but Rorty's biography is only now just gaining more attention. With the publication of his autobiographical essay, "Trotsky and the Wild Orchids" in Philosophy and Social Hope and particularly with the publication of a collection of interviews, Take Care of Freedom and Truth will Take Care of Itself, Rorty's biography is becoming more explicitly seen.

One of the things that comes out of Rorty's writings is the notion that he's a fallen metaphysician. In "Trotsky", he says quite explicitly that he wanted as a child to have that kind of state of bliss that is associated with religion and Platonism. Until he was 20, he looked for a way to be a metaphysician. People use this knowledge to characterize why he is often considered to be an "end of philosophy" philosopher. Almost all philosophers of note who are even symathetic to Rorty still have qualms about the extremes he goes to. They take it that Rorty is a person who was fooled by Platonism, and he never wants to be fooled again.

Pirsig's path is a bit different. We might describe Pirsig as a recovering metaphysician. Pirsig sees something worth rehabilitating in the area that both he and Rorty want to vacate. The difference may be that Pirsig saw something ailing, something dying that needed help, whereas Rorty sees much ado about nothing. Pirsig's reaction to his experience in scientific study suggests that Pirsig took it as very important that somebody mount a response to the problems in the philosophy of science he inadvertantly discovered (which eventually leads to larger problems about reason). Rorty, on the other hand, thinks that for the most part we get along just fine in day to day life, and that the only short-term importance in mounting these responses are for those philosophers that are plagued by them.

What typifies both of them is a fall. Rorty fell after attempting to be a Platonist, to find the One, and Pirsig fell after attempting to be a realist scientist. My difference to the two is that I fell from nothing to nowhere. I went from mumbling about God to mumbling about Reason or Science, not really believing in either, so my conversion to Rortyan pragmatism didn't resemble a rejection of anything, or really a conversion at all, I simply felt like I was better able to articulate what I had been believing and acting for quite awhile.

I'm not quite sure what the difference is between the feeling of conversion or articulation. I have a feeling it amounts to what a person becomes obsessed with or fearful of. I find further enunciation of pragmatism to be interesting, but I have a feeling I'd be far more reconciliatory to those who think Rorty goes too far than Rorty might be. I'm less likely to become engrossed in subsidiaries of the epistemology industry. And much the same goes for Pirsig. I think his fear for the fate of the West, its spiritual crisis, is too overblown. I think it grows out of his own biography and creates an hysteria over the problems he considers. Things are neither as bad in the old framework as Pirsig thinks them, nor better in the framework Pirsig suggests. What Rorty helped me enunciate is the sense that just not that much hinges on what philosophers talk about--at least it looks that way compared to the scope at which most philosophers talk.

Thursday, June 15, 2006

Rorty's Myopia

I've read numbers of reviews of Rorty's work over the years and I've never been very satisfied by them. Maybe that shouldn't be very surprising. One of the things that is given often is the accusation that Rorty's a little myopic. This happens most often in reference to Rorty's take on the history of philosophy and on political philosophy. For a long time I've thought that comment to be unfair: Rorty delineates what he's going to talk about, and the range of material he feel's comfortable in being authoritative over, so it seems unfair to demand that every person do everything--doesn't it?

The first type, philosophers who think that philosophy-as-epistemology is too narrow a view of philosophy, is given good voice by Susan Neiman. But there are many others. The trouble with this critique is that is true but unavoidable. Philosophy is the kind of thing that you have to delimit the area you are working in. All things are like that, but philosophy is so amorphous that in no other subject can so many things fit under its mantle comfortably and not connect up to each other. For this very reason Rorty has been shunning the idea that he's an "end of philosophy" philosopher. He intimates such things every so often, but the reason latent in his writings (sometimes quite explicitly) is that he's talking about philosophy that looks to epistemology first. That is the kind of philosophy he's deconstructing. So philosophers who take other kinds of philosophy as primary, and criticize Rorty for missing them, are cutting him at cross-purposes. It's why we see on the backs of the best of these books (like Neiman and Toulmin's) Rorty's praise.

The second type, philosophers and others who that Rorty's political philosophy is too narrow or shallow, is given good voice by people like Richard Bernstein. Like the first, I think it's true, but it again cuts Rorty at cross-purposes. Rorty's political philosophy is very general and rarified and I don't think it cuts us off from anything more we would like to see done in political and social criticism, so-called criticisms of Rorty (and pragmatism) being not radical enough or in favor of the status quo.

In thinking about these kinds of critiques and how I view them is when I realized that thinking that Rorty is mypoic is the exact response he is looking for. When we look at the way Rorty is suggesting that we change the conversation, the response that Rorty isn't talking about the things he should be by his own lights tips us off to the idea that--if that's the only response you have--his work has done its magic. Rorty wants us to shift our attention to the construction of different narratives of philosophy, narratives he doesn't always offer us. Rorty wants us to concentrate on the more concrete in political and moral philosophy. Rorty's myopia is only a bad thing if one also thinks that a philosopher, or any other person, must do everything. Rorty has suggested that what he does is more like what Locke conceived of philosophy, as an underlaborer clearing away conceptual debris. After the debris is cleared, one is opened to the construction of better responses to problems, problems that will be different than the ones engendered by the epistemological debris.

If one is bored by Rorty or thinks he doesn't go far enough, that is not a bad response to have. It means that whatever in Rorty or pragmatism that one might have learned has already been internalized. Rorty wants to induce boredom in the problems he deconstructs so people will move on to other things. Rorty's simple dichotomies are there to be rejected because a good rejection of them will mean that one has evacuated the area in which Rorty was occupying, at which point there's nothing to criticize Rorty for because you've done what Rorty wanted. The only point of criticism is to say that Rorty should move on, too. That Rorty's effectively worked himself out of job, so why doesn't he get a new job? But that might only prove strong if there weren't still people who ended up on the wrong side of Rorty's simple dichotomies, the same people the person bored by Rorty would still need to fight. It's like Rorty's got the backs of all those wanting to do something other than epistemological philosophy, defending their right to do it, and in fact commending them for it.

Wednesday, June 14, 2006

Philosophy, Metaphilosophy, Metaphysics

“Metaphysics” is an overworked word that gets people into trouble, particularly pragmatists. There are so many ways of defining metaphysics, like epistemology, that Rorty has remarked that we should just leave it alone, that it is undefinable. While true, philosophical conversation would be a good deal harder since everybody still insists on using it, even Rorty. Given that Pirsig defines his philosophy as a “metaphysics” and Rorty defines metaphysics as the most basic philosophical wrong turn, I’ve often been asked how the two are supposed to hang together, as I’ve claimed they can. My answer is typically that Pirsig’s definition of “metaphysics” is basically the same as what Rorty and pragmatists would define “philosophy”: a really big, general view of things. Rorty’s use of metaphysics, however, is more narrow than that, basically commensurate with the way Heidegger defined it: Platonism. Maybe not Plato himself, but the whole line of footnotes that extend from him. In what follows, I’d first like to offer definitions (in the form of questions) of my title characters and suggest the ways in which I see them hanging together.

1) Metaphilosophy: What way of life are we going to follow?

2) Philosophy: How do things, in the broadest sense of the term, hang together, in the broadest sense of the term?

3) Metaphysics: How do things really hang together?

The first is taken from Pierre Hadot (in, for instance, What is Ancient Philosophy?), which is a use that rhymes quite well with Wittgenstein. Each form of life uses certain vocabularies with which they make sense of the world. So while doing philosophy (stolen from Wilfrid Sellars), we try and develop a vocabulary with which we try and get the rest of our vocabularies (scientific, moral, religious, literary, political, etc.) to hang together. Doing metaphilosophy involves a conversation about which form of life is better, which kind of philosophical vocabulary we should be using to get our other vocabularies to hang together. One way of describing metaphysics, then, is as a particular kind of philosophical vocabulary, a kind of philosophy that tries to force metaphilosophical consequences by an outside source. By bit by bit hammering down how things really hang together, the choice of what form of life we are going to be is taken away from us, determined instead by something other than us (e.g., Reality or God).

In the sense of these terms, most propounded philosophies by philosophers are a tangle of metaphilosophical and philosophical theses, though most philosophers in the past (and present for that matter) take their meta- theses for granted and disentangling them is a bit of a chore. What Rorty shunts under the name “pragmatism” is mostly just metaphilosophical theses, though from time to time he’ll be inconsistent (in the sense that pragmatism is only the name for a metaphilosophical stance, which historically it hasn’t only been) and attribute a philosophical thesis to pragmatism. But with the above distinctions in hand, it is fairly easy to distinguish Rorty’s meta- from philosophical theses (with the realization, then, that he spends most of his time doing metaphilosophy).

Doing philosophy can sometimes vault us up into metaphilosophy. Philosophy can have metaphilosophical consequences, or rather, some philosophies won’t be appropriate for some forms of life. This isn’t so much because of any “metaphysical hammering,” but because the two are more like on a continuum, there isn’t a hard and fast distinction between the two (which is why philosophers like Stanley Cavell say that there isn’t any such thing as metaphilosophy). Sometimes when doing philosophy you are forced into a discussion about what form of life we want to be. This happens when, for instance, there isn’t anywhere else for the conversation to go, when a straight out argument isn’t going to work because both sides seem to be begging the question over each other. What distinguishes metaphysical philosophy from nonmetaphysical philosophy is that metaphysics tries to get things hammered down by something else, e.g. Reality or Facts, whereas in nonmetaphysical philosophy the only thing doing any hammering are people.

What I'm trying to get a distinction between is the view that “there is a way things are” and “there is a way things really are.” The way pragmatists see philosophy is as taking common sense and finding something wrong with it. Common sense, as ways in which we make our way about the world, entails a way things are. That's what it is. A rock is a rock exactly because it is a rock and not a book of philosophy or Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. What the metaphysicians have taken to be philosophy is the correction of common sense by getting at the way the things really are. What fully pragmatized thought tries to do is change common sense by offering us better ways of thinking how things are.

So, if I, as a (hopefully) fully pragmatized philosopher, am to be identified as a materialist (as in thinking that corpuscularianism is a good way of thinking about what science does), or a nominalist (as in thinking that, if there is distinction between universals and particulars, it can only be made within a language and not between language (universals) and non-language (particulars)), or a Darwinian (as in thinking that humans are simply one more species of animal doing its best), it is not because I think that any of those ways entail a way things really are (or rather, the way things really are entails them), but that they entail a way things are, in that I act and behave and think as if those things are the way they are--because that's what common sense is: “the way I act and behave and think.”

What metaphysicians think is that our common sense can be corrected by the way things really are, that the ways we act, behave, and think can be changed by ascertaining the way things really are in the world. Pragmatists only think that the ways we act, behave, and think can be changed by alternative ways of acting, behaving, and thinking and that the “ascertainment of the really real” is a wheel that plays no part in the system. It’s not that the metaphysicians aren’t motivated in their redescriptions by their belief that their redescription is closer to the way things really are, but I’m suggesting that there’s no difference between redescriptions offered by metaphysicians who think that they finally have it and by pragmatists who think that this is just one more potentially better alternative to try out. So by an act of Ockham’s Razor, we’d like to cut out the wheel spinning all by itself.

So in practice there is often no difference between what a metaphysician and a poet does: they offer redescriptions of our language to expand the space of reasons, to expand what we can talk about and direct our attention towards what we should talk about. We can offer a distinction between two different kinds of metaphysicians to be more detailed: speculative and empirical (see the beginning of "Do Analysts and Metaphysicians Disagree?"). Speculative metaphysicians proceed by offering gigantic redescriptions of their subject and eventually tack on the claim “this is how things really are.” Empirical metaphysicians proceed by making an inquiry into a suitably large and fundamental topic like “Truth” or “Reality” or “Language” and, when finished with such an inquiry, suppose they’ve found out something essential about their subject. But on both sides these are tack-ons. For instance, sociobiologists like E. O. Wilson and Steven Pinker think that their work in biology or the brain or language say something about the large, important sounding topic philosophers have called “Human Nature” and that finding out the way we are will tell us something about what we should do. Pragmatists think that not only is the notion of “Human Nature” too metaphysical to tell us anything useful, but that how we are or have been will never do more than give us a starting point or possibly guidance towards what we should do or become.

Particularly with empirical metaphysicians, the difference in practice between metaphysicians and non- is that metaphysicians will tend to waste time and effort trying to make an impossible establishment of essence, of how things really are rather than sufficing with making the case that this is the way things should be. Pragmatists side with the Romantics in thinking that the human species is an infinitely malleable creature. Platonists believe that there is an essential way we are and it is by distorting this essence that bad things happen, like injustice. Neo-Romantics like pragmatists, however, think we can toss the representational notion of “distortion” and still be able tell the difference between better and worse and change are practices to make things better.

The choice between Romanticism and Platonism is the major struggle in metaphilosophy. One of the particular battles is over whether pragmatists can be Romantics and still hope for the same things Platonists hope for, like the end of injustice. Platonists don’t think they can. Pragmatists think that shared hopes about the end of injustice and the particular possibilities opened up by redescriptions are more important than the Platonist tack-on. But Platonists think that without the tack-on you cannot have the hope or the redescriptions. So for philosophers, the last major site of battle is over Platonism, though nothing else seems to hang in the balance. Platonists think everything hangs, pragmatists think nothing hangs, but at the end of the day they both have the same hopes and dreams. Pragmatists think this bodes well for them, for it at least foists the burden of proof on Platonists. 2500 years of having the burden of proof and being driven further and further back has marginalized Platonic philosophy (i.e. academic philosophy) from the rest of society. The more society gets on well enough and improves itself without having what Platonists think it requires, the more pragmatists think this suggests that Platonism is a scholastic endeavor that adds little to society. Pragmatists would like to end the scholasticism and get on with something else. Rather than harassing everyone else about how they are living in bad faith, nonmetaphysical philosophers would at least be able to add some small measure of perspective to their compatriots work in other areas.

Monday, June 12, 2006

Voice, Mind, Heart, Spirit

I first became aware of Arthur Danto while going through Nietzsche studies. His 1965 Nietzsche as Philosopher, despite Walter Kaufmann’s earlier efforts, did the most to make anglophone philosophers aware of Nietzsche as a serious philosopher, or rather, a philosopher to pay attention to. Danto was an able and up and coming analytic philosopher at the time and related Nietzsche to English-speakers by taking him to have philosophical theses that they recognized. I since found out that Danto was an aesthetician and art critic, though I also found a little book of his called Mysticism and Morality which covers Eastern philosophy for Westerners. Obviously a well-rounded guy. The other day I picked up a recent book of his used, The Body/Body Problem, which is a collection of essays. I was particularly excited to read it because its last essay was called “In Their Own Voice: Philosophical Writing and Actual Experience”. This is an area I am particularly interested in.

The essay itself is fairly tricky. Firstly, I should apologize to every teacher, friend, TA, or critic who has yelped at me for being easily distracted and side-tracked—to which I normally respond, “Oh, quiet! It’s part of the larger plan, man! Off my case!” I now know what they mean. Danto moves over several topics in the course of the essay and it’s not entirely clear that they all involve one another. They all do relate to each other, but Danto’s movements are so quick that you don’t realize until later that while he’s talking about blind submission now, he used to be talking about Cavell. So I apologize for snapping at anyone over my penchant for following my mind wherever it goes.

Danto begins his essay with some interesting talk about the difference between philosophers who have to submit papers to editors and philosophers who are requested to give papers. He says that Donald Davidson once told him that he’s never had to submit a paper to editorial review, and comments, “Instead, those parts of his papers which an editor might peremptorily have written ‘Clarify!!!’ next to in the margin have given rise to mighty rivers of commentary and analysis, and doubtless have seen more than one critic through to tenure as a specialist in the philosophy of Donald Davidson.” (228) Danto continues his musing on this topic by noting that, possibly since most of these star philosophers write papers to be read before audiences, they are filled with devices designed to hold an audience’s attention. These interesting insights continue until Danto reaches Wittgenstein (and Heidegger and Dewey), reckoning that the strongest philosophers have the strongest styles, styles others wouldn’t dare try to imitate, at which point he asks, “Does that mean that philosophy and philosopher are inseparable? Or that there is a deep connection between philosophy and voice?” (229)

I tend to want to answer in the affirmative. Ever since Rorty tossed off the locution “philosophy as a kind of writing” while further implanting the latent notion (that only Toulmin pulled out explicitly) of “philosophy as a kind of autobiography,” I’ve been excited and energized by the idea. I take such a slogan to infuse many of the other philosophical positions pragmatists take. However, from those same readings, I know it's not entirely true. Or rather, Danto’s questions cannot be answered entirely in the affirmative. Pragmatists are suspicious of anything deep, especially anything related to that amorphous subject “philosophy.” You can’t help but define philosophy by the very activity of doing it, but every definition eventually bites you in the ass. But if there is something deep about philosophy, it would be the connection between philosopher and philosophy, philosophy and voice, but still—how deep is that?

By moving to Wittgenstein, Danto proceeds very slowly to answer those questions negatively. The rest of the essay is basically a long, drawn out and unfinished, slowly spoken “Nooooooooowell, maybe.” He moves by first telling us in a parenthetical, after writing “Wittgensteinian ‘truths’”, that “I am employing quotation marks because I want to leave the reader a bit edgy with the idea that there are such things as Heideggerian or Wittgensteinian truths rather than truths which happen to have been uttered by Heidegger or Wittgenstein”. This indeed leaves me a bit edgy. This raises the specter of truth distinguished from rhetoric, the Platonic distinctions that Rorty and Pirsig tell us got us into all of this footnote trouble in the first place. Rortyans would prefer to say that, maybe there aren’t Wittgensteinian or Heideggerian truths, but there are truths we began to speak only after we began to speak Wittgensteinese or Heideggerese.

But still, Danto isn’t entirely off point here. There is a difference between the style a truth (or point) is made in and the truth (or point) that is made. This has to do with translatability, in the ability of a particular point to be made in different styles or vocabularies. We see Wittgenstein and Heidegger and Dewey all making the same points when we translate them all into a vocabulary that houses them all, which is what Rorty specializes in. However, not all truths or points can be made in every vocabulary, which is probably the point at which we can call them false. And Danto’s style of making this point, the language or vocabulary, probably makes me suspicious because of his penchant for making the distinction too coarsely between truth and rhetoric. Danto does this, I think, because he takes much more seriously the notion of “representation” than do pragmatists. Danto is at odds with pragmatists over this issue, but Danto, despite being an unrequited user of it in the face of antirepresentationalists like Rorty, seems to use it an ameliorated sense that raises less problems for pragmatists.

The next section of Danto’s paper sees him bridge from Wittgenstein to Stanley Cavell on Wittgenstein, providing a tremendously illuminating commentary on Cavell and his style of writing. He eventually makes the point that Cavell mirrors Wittgenstein in that his writing style embodies the philosophy put forward. The style of the Philosophical Investigations embodies Wittgenstein’s suggested attitude towards philosophy (one of therapy) and Cavell’s writings, particularly A Pitch of Philosophy, embodies Cavell’s suggested attitudes towards philosophy (one of dialogic conversation). “…what is the connection, if any, between the what and the how of saying? The philosopher may be the writing, which means that to discipline the writing is to regiment the philosopher. But is there any internal connection between the writing and the thought? Can, that is, any thought be expressed in any voice, even if not all styles will embody or exemplify it?” (238) I have already answered this last question in the negative. Not all thoughts can be expressed in any voice, that is, not all things can be said in every vocabulary. To answer the question positively, as Danto intimates he would, would be to fall for Plato’s fantasy of universal truths that underlie all ephemeral ways of speaking. Rorty’s point in creating what his student Robert Brandom has called the “vocabulary vocabulary” was to dissuade us of such a notion.

But Danto continues by quickly bridging to the topic of blind submission. His comments here, again, are very illuminating. I won’t cover them (except to say that Danto half-imagines a case of blind submission in which a star philosopher writes in defending his own philosophy and a lesser philosopher writes in defending the star’s philosophy, and both of them are equally cogent to the point of flipping a coin over which one to blindly choose for publication—a situation, I have to confess, I daydreamed myself being in with Rorty) and instead skip to the end. One could imagine from what has come before that Danto will land in favor of blind submission—what, afterall, could matter if truth is divorced from rhetoric?—but Danto actually lands a bit on the other side. “The reason voice is relevant to philosophical writing is that philosophical writings by a single person form complex systems and constellations of ideas—they have pasts and futures as well as presents—and the reasons we are interested in voice are those which explain our interest in philosophical creativity. Creative philosophers do not do philosophy by producing atoms of bottom-line ‘good’ philosophy. What they write carries what they have written and what they hope to write as the aura of a total vision.” (242-3)

I have my suspicions about “total vision,” but I see what Danto is talking about. And he’s quite right. “This means that suppression of our facticities results in a distorted representation of the world, the world according to Nobody. And this makes bottom-line philosophy abstract and distorted and surrealistic.” (244) We see Danto’s latent realism rising up again, but his conclusions are resonant: “Philosophy in its professional practice has loosened itself more and more from the world as we really experience it anyway, in our embodied and historical natures, in its drive to secure something disembodied and timeless. And I think a dreadful price, the price of irrelevance, is paid for this: nobody reads philosophy but philosophers. … Let blind review continue, but blind philosophy might to everyone’s profit stop being written. Philosophers should be encouraged to speak in their own voice about the world that means something to them. The freer the voice, the better the philosophy. For now, that is the only connection I see.” (244-5)

That’s not the only connection I see and that’s probably because of Danto’s seeming realism, but I don’t know. I can’t quite put my finger on Danto (least of all through his roaming essay), but I feel like his heart is in the right place—if that is to be discerned from the last pages of a piece. But if that were true, I would have to accept “Good is a noun” and there’s no way I’m swallowing that. But perhaps there’s a difference between a person’s heart and their spirit and perhaps Pirsig’s spirit lies elsewhere from his heart. Mind, heart, spirit: the written lines, the written conclusion, and everything else in between—the lines or otherwise.

This lands us in the lap of translation, or interpretation (which is how Davidson translates that Quineanism), which is where I left us with voice. “Voice” is a metaphor that pragmatists can get along with. Ever since Gadamer and Sellars, Dewey and Wittgenstein, Heidegger and Nietzsche, it’s been harder and harder for philosophers to just assume that we can break away from language, harder for them to use bodily metaphors, and harder for them to use theological metaphors. If Dennett is to be believed, the “mind” isn’t all we thought it was. If Susan Neiman, then the “heart” must include more than good intentions. If Bloom, the “spirit” just is what we make of it. However, I think all three combine to make up the “voice” of a philosopher. This is all like Davidson’s triangulation of world-person-community, which, translated into textual interpretation, plays out into text-writer-reader. Understanding a language takes Davidson’s triangle and understanding a philosopher takes it, too. Interpretation is the collusion of the three parts, and no part can be understood separately.

A philosopher’s voice includes her mind, her heart, and her spirit. It includes how she’s getting to a place, where she’s going, and where she will end up being—the now, the little bit later, and the far into the future. Not all minds are cogent, not all hearts good, not all spirits living—not all arguments sound, conclusions useful, or philosophies engaging. But the philosopher, the voice, includes all of these. Not all of Pirsig’s arguments are successful, not all of Pirsig’s conclusions are acceptable, and not all of his philosophy is interesting. But Pirsig’s voice is powerful and inimitable, capturing our attention still. And though Pirsig’s voice may cease to echo someday, that voice will still be a sharp, loud thunderclap for those who discover him, if one delivered in a room with bad acoustics.